‘The Leopard’ (Il Gattopardo) is an Italian film made in 1963. Arguably Luchino Visconti’s best film and certainly the most personal of his historical epics based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name. The Leopard chronicles the fortunes of Prince Fabrizio Salina and his family during the unification of Italy in the 1860s. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1963.
This magnum opus sometimes compared to ‘Gone with the Wind’, for its magnificence. It was quite an effort to restore this movie in 2010, removing dirt and scratches as Martin Scorsese was instrumental in his effort for transferring 35 mm print into digital format
Watching ‘The Leopard ‘is an absolute feast for the senses as Visconti’s camera captures all the detail and beauty in the Sicilian landscape and buildings that the film takes place in. this this film also. This saga of Sicilian aristocracy is made in the grandest scale possible, recreates the mid nineteenth century so very nostalgic and lavishness, so to say the international ensemble of stars include the American Burt Lancaster, the Frenchman Alain Delon and the Italians Claudia Cardinale (who is dubbed in the Italian version by Solvejg D’Assunta because her native tongue was French) and Terence Hill. It is generally seen today in the Italian-language version, in which Lancaster’s lines are dubbed into Italian by Corrado Gaipa, simultaneously the English dubbed version was also produced at the time, in which Lancaster’s own voice is heard.
When Visconti was told by producers that they needed to cast a star in order to help to ensure that they’d earn enough money to justify the big budget, the director’s first choice was one of the Soviet Union’s preeminent actors, Nikolai Cherkasov. Learning that Cherkasov was in no condition, Twentieth Century Fox stipulated that the star should be Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Spencer Tracy or Burt Lancaster. The producers chose Hollywood star Burt Lancaster without consulting Visconti, which insulted the director and caused tension on the set; but Visconti and Lancaster ended up working well together, and their resulting friendship lasted the rest of their lives
Burt Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina during the 1860s, a time when Garibaldi revolutionizes the movement to end the aristocracy, and bring a new era of democracy in Italy. The prince recognizes that his days are counted, and in his statement marks that the times of leopards and lions are taken over by jackals and hyenas. The Prince of Salina begins to make plans, which include his nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), a spirited opportunist; instead Tancredi joins Garibaldi’s army and fights in the streets alongside the revolutionaries. Further along, he switches sides and betrays revolutionaries and become responsible for Garibaldi’s defeat.
The Prince of Salina arranges for Tancredi’s marriage to the beautiful Angelica Sadera (Claudia Cardinale), to boost the family’s fortunes. The director Visconti underlines their relationship during a stunning sequence in which the young couple plays in the castle’s unused rooms, giddily chasing each other through dust and decay. Understanding the relevance of 19th century in Europe- the film illustrates the experience of the political maneuverings within Sicilian society and its turbulence, where the aristocracy had to make room for the now powerful middle class, is explored at great length precisely because the film’s relaxed pace and long running time allows the various issues and debates to be played out.
Besides the film deftly shows the grand historical events centered around Prince of Salina, a man of great integrity, intellect and standing, who represents the nobility, knowing his days are conceded to the newer generation, let goes his privileged position. Although it is not apparent until the final ballroom sequence, the Prince has also resigned himself to his own mortality despite his strong attraction to Angelica. Nevertheless, the Prince does not take advantage of the situation and strongly encourages the marriage between her and his nephew, Tancredi Falconeri. In other words, the aging nobleman peacefully concedes and here’s you got to watch Lancaster’s sensitive and towering performance, one cannot forget. Visconti’s skill as a director is how much information he communicates to the audience without dialogue but by facial expressions and sideways glances of the characters and the unspoken dynamics between the Prince, Angelica and Tancredi is the real key to appreciating The Leopard and the final interaction between the three on the ballroom floor is a triumph of visual storytelling.
This is one of the most classic approaches to the film making, and the sporadic narrative marks it as a very modern film. A lot of attention is paid to the crescendos between large groups of people gathered together – the various religious services, formal dinners and of course the lavish ball, a much celebrated sequence that takes up nearly the last third of the film. Visconti is less interested in driving the story as he is in creating the atmosphere and energy of the time and place. Visconti takes advantage of the Sicilian landscape and architecture to ensure that there is not a single frame that is not bursting with beauty. The setting of ‘The Leopard’ is not simply the background to the action but very much in the foreground. It is this understanding of visual aestheticism that contributes to the lasting legacy of The Leopard.
Shot in glorious, full-color 1-to-2.35 widescreen, Visconti’s film happily fit in with the epic craze of the day, as this film released after Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Cleopatra (1963). The director makes the most of the format, decorating nearly every frame from tip to toe with ornate spectacle, golden trinkets and luxurious tapestries.
Visconti’s film enriched by his career in opera and theater, as well as a deep knowledge of literature and painting. Hailing from a wealthy, aristocratic family, one of the most distinguished Italian, rejected his origins and joined the Communist Party.
Visconti’s career spanned over 40 years in films and was instrumental in creating the modern cinema with his early neo-realist works. His films Ossessione (1942), and La Terra Trema (1948), the latter considered a cornerstone of the movement. He then gravitated to more highly structured historical and psychological works, such as Senso (1954) and The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, 1963) and Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, 1971).
Visconti made it clear with ‘The Leopard’ that nationalism as the passion of a people for its Italian identity was never clear. The Sicilian peasants needed deep seated social reforms. Visconti points that the raising power of Jackals would do nothing to change the poverty which was endemic under the Bourbons. Visconti when interviewed later was firm on the point that his ‘pessimism’ within the film by not showing the rising peasantry leaves the intellectual space to imagine that something far greater than mere national unification is needed, if social inequality is to be eliminated.
This is an enormous effort and an excellent movie, and highly recommended movie in a historical genre.
The film has circulated in numerous versions. Visconti’s first cut was 205 minutes long, but this was regarded as excessive- He then cut it down to 185 minutes for the official release, and regarded this version as his preferred length. The version shown in the English-speaking world was a 161-minute dubbed version edited by 20th Century Fox. A 151-minute version was released in Spain.
- Directed by Luchino Visconti
- Produced by Goffredo Lombardo & Pietro Notarianni
- Written by: Pasquale Festa Campanile; Enrico Medioli; Suso Cecchi d’Amico; Massimo Franciosa & Luchino Visconti
- Starring: Burt Lancaster; Alain Delon; Claudia Cardinale; Serge Reggiani & Terence Hill
- Music by Nino Rota
- Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
- Editing by Mario Serandrei
- Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
- Release dates: 28 March 1963 (Italy)
- Running time of 161 Min (US Theatrical Release); 185 Min (US Uncut Version); 195 Min (French Version) & 205 Min (Full Version)
- Country: Italy
- Language: Italian